Hello, and welcome to the CrossGen Founders podcast. The show where I talk to businesses with founders of different age groups on how they work together to start and run successful businesses. I’m your host, Wendy Mayhew. In today’s episode I talk with Eli Fathi and Aydin Mirazee, co-founders of FluidWare.
Thank you both for joining me.
Wendy: First of all, I want to know how the two of you met.
Aydin: Eli are we going to do the traditional thing where I just do it and then you insert commentary?
Aydin: This is like old times.
Wendy: Old times are good.
Aydin: Yes. Old times are good. I met Eli because I was graduating. I was doing my engineering graduation breakfast, and there was a part where I think it was one of Eli’s friends who was up there speaking. And he said, all graduates rise and go randomly meet some of the alumni in the room. And so, I randomly went, and approached Eli and he gave me his business card. And then that was that, so I met him there.
We might have had three minutes of chit chat, but I was just graduating, and I was just collecting business cards at that point. Later on, I had an idea for a company and I go through my deck of business cards. I’m kind of this keener new grad, collecting business cards. I emailed a bunch of people, and nobody replied except for Eli.
Eli said, look, you attached a business plan. I’m not going to look at it unless you know that I’m not going sign an NDA. He said, look, why don’t you come over and we can talk about it. I said sure. Where are you? And he says do you know where Billings Bridge mall is? I said, sure, I live close to that. He’s like, do you know where Ohio street is? I said, I live on Ohio street. My apartment building and his office building shared a parking lot. It was the most random thing in the world. So, I go in and started chatting with him and then he became an advisor for the first idea that we were working on, which ultimately went nowhere. But I think we call it the successful failure because we learned that we work really well together. And it kind of set the stage for doing FluidWare together.
Eli: Basically. I wanted to teach him not to give out ideas and business plans because in this cruel world people will steal it. I said, I will not read it. But first we have to make sure you protect your ideas otherwise, you cannot just throw it to anybody.
Wendy: And Aydin never did that again.
Wendy: Whose idea was it to come up with FluidWare?
Aydin: It wasn’t really an idea – literally you can’t follow this playbook because it was so random. We had a fail. We started one company and it failed; this was not with Eli. Eli was an advisor teaching us about business stuff, just charitably, giving us time for the most part. And then we had another idea. We started a company based on it. It was a joint idea, but we didn’t end up doing that thing. Because we started doing that and we kind of pivoted, and then we pivoted again and pivoted again. There were many, many pivots. But I think the way that we came up with the idea was, there’s many, many good things that Eli does, but Eli’s also very well networked.
And so, in those early days, we’d come up with ideas and then he’d book meetings with his friends and back in the day, you’d meet in person. So, we’d pitch our ideas to people and say, would you want to buy it? And they would say no, and we’d go back to the drawing board. And we did this a few times. We had a feedback platform, but when we were pitching customers, they’d say why don’t you guys do a survey product? And we were just looking for something that people would pay for. People said surveys enough times and that’s how we got into surveys.
Eli: That’s correct but, there were also timing issues at that point. You know everything has to do with timing. They’ll tell you that there are multiple reasons for a company to succeed. The leadership team, the availability of money and so on. One of them is timing. The timing was important because there were things in the geopolitical sphere that took place in Canada that were important to us. And that’s why we were able to do it. At that point, the Patriot Act came into play and governments were not allowed to really utilize information and serve it outside of Canada. And that was one huge advantage that we had, and that kind of allowed us to penetrate the government market that enabled us to build business and then go international.
Wendy: When you started it was a very crowded market. What were you going to be offering, or what did you offer in a crowded market to stand out from the rest?
Aydin: Yes, so here’s the thing, we weren’t thinking about it that way. This is a product that pivoted a few times. The first version we were building was a platform for criticism. It’s a crazy idea. I won’t go into what it was, but that didn’t work. So, okay we’ll do a feedback platform. That was a little bit better. People didn’t kick us out of their office within the first two minutes when we said that. But then it just kept converging back. We just kept getting back guided into surveys. It wasn’t so much how do we take over the world at that time? It was more, it seemed if we built a good product here, that people would buy it.
Part of this is being naive. I didn’t as much as do a Google search to see that there were 500 competitors. If I did, maybe I would’ve said, let’s not do this. So, we kind of started doing it and we kind of pivoted into it. And then once we pivoted into it and we decided, this is what we’re doing, that’s when we figured out how to differentiate ourselves. It wasn’t like we had this great idea. We were, it seems like there is a business around surveys. You know, people would buy survey software. So, let’s go down this path and we’ll figure it out. And what happened was, we did have some novel things. The first version of the software that we built, back in 2008, was novel because back then in the browser, you couldn’t do certain things like building a drag and drop user interface wasn’t an easy thing to do.
People hadn’t seen moving objects on your browser window. So, we did come up with some clever ideas around it, but what really got us to take off and really got us to find our niche is what Eli said, which was that time in Canada people were afraid of the Patriot Act. If you were a federal government, any form of government, you didn’t want to use an American software because it would be hosted on American servers. And that was a no-no. It sounds crappy because when you think about it, the only reason people bought our software at the time was because of where we hosted our servers. It might be not great, but heck if that’s what it takes for people to pay you and for you to be able to sell products, that’s what we did.
And that was where we got our start, but the thing was all we needed was a start, right? You have to start, you get some revenue, you take the revenue, you make the product better. And then we kept growing it to make the product better. There were two major turning points. I think the Federal Government stuff helped us get launched. The next thing was, we took the Patriot Act idea and went across Canada – colleges, universities, anyone who was government funded, we went on a scare campaign and basically said: “Patriot Act, be afraid come to us, work in Canada”. And that really worked.
But then, eventually what really got us to take off was the pivoting into enterprise. And Eli was really good about this. I think I was a young kid wanting to compete with Survey Monkey – head on wanting to beat the Survey Monkey brand. And I think at some point we realized you can’t out Survey Monkey.
But they weren’t focusing on the enterprise and intricate features that only power users would need. And so, we started doing that. And that’s when the company really took off. We were selling for higher prices and we were selling a lot more of it.
Eli: You know, in addition to what Aydin said in notwithstanding how difficult it was, the lean years, there are two incidents that really, if they did not work right, there would be no company because that really determined there was a bid for the first time in the government.
And we were competing with just two companies, Canadian, both startups, both with no revenues. And I vividly remember, Aydin and I sitting on a Sunday afternoon replying to the bid; we won the first one.
And then there was a second one, both Governments. And we worked for hours debating the numbers, analyzing what to do. We won the second one and that company folded because there was just whoever won. And not that the government at that point was very lucrative. It took over three, four years, for the first two wins. And at that point it was only about $6,000 each. So, it was $12,000, but that made a huge, huge difference to launch the company. Aydin and I sat and analyzed, and obviously we came with the right answer because we won the second one. It was very valuable because without these two, we would’ve folded. So that was really, good.
Wendy: So now I want to just switch this over a little bit about getting along, running a cross-generational business. When I first sent an email to you, both asking for you to do an interview with me, Aydin, you wrote back and said, I definitely attribute all of the how we made it work to Eli. I was a young overconfident and hard to work with, 22-year-old.
Aydin: Yes. That’s pretty accurate.
Wendy: So Eli, why did you choose Aydin if he had an attitude like that?
Eli: You know, I mentored a lot of people over the years. The two things that Aydin had that are jewels in the crown – his work ethics. I’m a workaholic, but I don’t know anybody like Aydin that will basically have work ethics that are out of this world.
Number one is work ethics. And secondly, is integrity. I mean, these two are really important to me because I told him if you work hard and you have high integrity, success will come. Good people do win in the end. And these two embodies Aydin. And to me, this was really, really, valuable, the two qualities that he has.
Wendy: But not everybody gets along perfectly all the time. So how did you resolve any conflicts that you might have had?
Aydin: I know this sounds crazy, but honestly, we didn’t really have many arguments. I think maybe once – I don’t know. I think we just got along. There’s a couple of things I think Eli is right. Say Eli was 10 years older than I was, maybe it wouldn’t have worked because I think Eli wasn’t really looking for recognition. He knew that he’s an accomplished guy – been there, done that. He didn’t need FluidWare, if that makes sense. Succeed or fail, he’s not doing this to build up his reputation or do something like that. So, we weren’t competitive. And so, I think one of the things which is interesting, I don’t know that I realized it at the time, but when I think about it now maybe I was just going to make up a number and say a 17-year-old, I would share a CEO title and call the 17-year-old, the Co-CEO.
There’s no chance in hell that would happen. I think back at that and I’m like wow, it takes a very confident person to be able to say, yes, I’ll be Co-CEO with you, I’ll share the title, no problem. I think that’s obviously a credit to Eli for doing that. And again, he was super, I mean, super-duper patient. I had tantrums and things from time to time and I think he was super patient. But what I will say is, I genuinely mean this, I really enjoyed working with him, to the point where we did the company, it was amazing, very intense, we’d actually talk for two hours a day, sporadically throughout the day.
He’d come in on weekends, we’d work. We’d drive to Toronto the same day and back because we didn’t want to pay a hotel fee because we were bootstrapped. We would talk the whole way and we would still not run out of stuff to talk about. So, there was a really good sort of chemistry. So yes, I think those are the things. And I think that also got to a point where I didn’t know anything about sales. Maybe I could be convincing and be passionate about our product, but that’s very different than running a sales team in a process and quota setting and all the mechanics of doing those sorts of things or finance your strategies. So, I just saw this as like a lottery ticket of an opportunity where I could just basically, learn all this stuff. It just felt like a life hack. I feel like I definitely got the better end of the bargain. That’s how I feel. And I don’t mind, I like getting the better end!
Eli: When there is no playbook of how to, we need to come to personalities. Basically, I show Aydin respect, but that’s my personality from day one and equal. It was equal to me in all aspects.
Aydin: Which is weird. Thinking back, he really did treat me as an equal, which was very interesting. If you’re just out of school basically, and for Eli to come in and say Aydin, what are your thoughts on this really important decision? What do I know? Just to an extent. So anyway, this is true.
Wendy: I always say this, we’re all equal. We all should be treated the same because we’re all equal.
Eli: But where it fails, Wendy, it’s when the competitiveness, it’s when the personality to makes things work – you have to segregate activities and you have to have respect. And Aydin was at the age, and it is a respectful individual. And I felt from day one that that’s the way that I behave with everybody equally.
It doesn’t matter if you’re the janitor or the CEO of a company, treat them equally, but not everybody does. So that’s why I’m saying you don’t have a playbook. You can’t say, if you do that, it’s going to work. You don’t know, it’s personality. You almost have to do some tests to verify the personality, if we are going to work with, to see if it will work or not. But you know, being competitive, you cannot be competitive. You have to share the spotlight. And if you don’t want to share the spotlight and in the case here, I really did not care about the spotlight as Aydin said. I gave him the spotlight because it was important to his career, it wasn’t important to my career. That’s what’s important, but I don’t think that you can write a playbook for that.
Wendy: Did you have defined roles?
Eli: Aydin was responsible for marketing and technology, and I was sales and finance.
Aydin: We had defined rules, but what was nice about it was that even though we were responsible for different things, we really consulted each other on everything. And again, because we talked for two hours a day, we always knew what was going on.
Eli: Or more.
Aydin: Even if there was a decision or whatever, we would always let the other person know. So, we just felt like we were super informed. Just to put into perspective, the relationship that we have today, years later – we sold the company in 2014. Eight years later, if I’m driving around and if I feel like it’s been more than seven days since I’ve talked to Eli, I just call him “It’s been a while”. And so yes, I think we just had a really good relationship.
Wendy: And you still do, which is great, which is awesome. How long did you have FluidWare before someone came knocking on the door to purchase your company?
Aydin: It was for six and a half years basically.
Wendy: Did it come out of the blue? Were you expecting something like that?
Aydin: No. It came out of the blue for the most part. We were going to raise venture capital. We think that that might have triggered it, but we don’t know for certain.
Wendy: So, they just came and asked if you were for sale?
Aydin: No, it wasn’t quite like that. They kind of, were “Hey, who are you people, we hear about you? Is there room for partnership?” It wasn’t an aggressive “Hi, we’re here to buy you. Here’s what we’re going to offer.” It was kind of like a “Who are you? Get to know you. Is there an opportunity for partnership or are we really competitors?” It really dragged on for more than a year. And we didn’t really know if there were friends or enemies for a long time. We didn’t know if they’re just trying to snoop and learn from what we’re doing. And, we were the smaller company, so we were very cautious.
Wendy: What were you doing different that enticed them to reach out to you?
Aydin: We had done a lot with a small team. We built the things that the professional researchers would want more of and we charged more for our software. We were more niche in that. If you were a power user, you would want to use Fluid Surveys. If you were an everybody user, Survey Monkey covered 80% of the use cases, but didn’t do the last 20%. So, we just focused on the last 20%. I’m simplifying it dramatically, but we were a more niche offering, and a more advanced offering. That was our expertise and they wanted to do the other side; their main competitor was Qualtrics on the enterprise side. And I think they acquired us to help them tackle that area.
Eli: Yes, they decided to get into the enterprise to compete with Qualtrics, and we were a good candidate. We had the best software in that field.
Wendy: So, it took about a year for you to make the decision, to say, yes, we’re going to do this. And then how long did it take before the transition? And I know Aydin that you spent two years with them after you had sold the company, is that correct?
Aydin: Yes, I mean two years and two months.
Wendy: But once you had your exit, you were still part of it, but Eli wasn’t and so Eli, what have you been doing while Aydin was still there? And have you started another business together?
Eli: Aydin was contracted, as you mentioned. I was only there for a transition of nine months. And once the nine months were over, Aydin, his brother and me and family wives, went to Europe to celebrate. So, I, on my last day, May 6th – I think that we left on May the 7th for Europe, the six of us – Aydin’s brother, Aydin and the spouses. Then I started to look at my what do I want to do next? And at that point one interesting area that started to emerge was the whole area of artificial intelligence. And you mentioned Leo Lax had an accelerator in the west end. And I joined there as a mentor with the notion to see what’s available. And as I was examining the area, I came across a young individual, again university age that had evolved something in the area of artificial intelligence.
It was intriguing to me, and I got to learn and study it. And then I worked, on a part-time basis, with about three people that started to evaluate that including a software person. At the same time, one of Aydin’s friends that Aydin introduced me to approached me. He had an idea utilizing AI as well. So, in August I had a discussion with him and a discussion with Aydin, about what should I do? Because we were hoping that when Aydin finished with the transition to Survey Monkey, we could do something together.
I asked Aydin – what do you think? Shall I do it? And he said, yes, do it. So, we combined forces, and I joined the other guy and we started. He already had the company going and I just joined as a CEO of the company and he’s also Aydin’s age. So, I was doing another situation with a younger person that was in the company.
Wendy: So now you are retired?
Eli: I retired in 2021, six years later.
Wendy: This has been great. Thank you!